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Better Stretching –– What to Do and When

If you are of a certain age, you might remember doing static stretching –– holding a pose to stretch a muscle for 30-60 seconds –– in a circle with your teammates before a cross country race or track meet. Every running magazine you read back in the day told you that static stretching before running was crucial because it made your muscles more supple and helped prevent injury. As the kids say…not so much.

It turns out that static stretching before running is something (like carbo loading, heel striking, short shorts, nylon track suits, and tube socks) that seemed like a good idea at the time, but with the benefit of more mature reflection, should be put aside. Recent research, in fact, suggests that static stretching before a run can actually undermine your running economy.

How it used to be

Here’s the science: static stretching before running lengthens muscles. An overly lengthened muscle can become too relaxed and will require more energy to fire efficiently. According to a recent Runner’s World article on the subject, “The elastic energy of a tighter muscle is going to have more recoil and power than a heavily stretched muscle.” (http://www.runnersworld.com/race-training/dynamic-stretching-better-before-training-and-racing) Several studies found that maintaining the same pace after static stretching requires more energy from those who stretched. Furthermore, merely stretching by itself will not prevent injury. If static stretching doesn’t prevent injuries or make you a more efficient runner, there is little reason to do it before running.

I suggest a different running preparation to warm up your muscles. Starting slowly at an easy pace, especially as you ease into a long run, gives you time to increase your blood flow and gets the muscles ready to fire efficiently when you pick up the tempo.

Warm up by starting slowly

Alternately, if you are about to undertake some faster paced running, such as a race or a speed workout, you will get more benefit from a brief light warm-up run coupled with dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretches are quick movements such as lunges, jumping, and leg swings. These increase blood flow, fire up muscles, and increase range of motion. They work not by isolating specific muscle groups but by activating many different muscles at the same time. Ultimately, dynamic stretching improves running performance by increasing your functional range of motion rather than merely improving your flexibility.

One caution: don’t try to convert a static stretch into a dynamic stretch by taking a stretch pose and then bouncing. That’s a good way to tear a muscle. Dynamic stretching is a completely different thing.

If you really are committed to your static stretch routine, there is still a place for it –– after your run. When your muscles are warmed up and you’ve finished your workout, you don’t have to be concerned about running economy. Stretching post-run helps to lengthen muscles, make them more pliable, reduce muscle soreness, and, ultimately, maybe help to prevent injury.

Most runners will benefit from some stretching. Just remember to do dynamic stretching before you run and static stretching after. In all cases, make sure that you have warmed up adequately before stretching by taking a light run.

How do you fit stretching into your running routine? Are there some dynamic or static stretches that you find particularly effective? Please tell us all about it in the comments –– thanks!


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